“In Cuba, we cannot counteract the impacts of coronavirus in the same way as other countries.” Cuban human rights activists describe how the country is impacted.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has not only claimed the lives of 60,000 people, but has also put political, economic and social systems under strain worldwide.[1] In Latin America, as in all regions of the world, the impacts of the pandemic are not distributed equally across society. States must devote particular attention to the lived realities […]

The global COVID-19 pandemic has not only claimed the lives of 60,000 people, but has also put political, economic and social systems under strain worldwide.[1] In Latin America, as in all regions of the world, the impacts of the pandemic are not distributed equally across society. States must devote particular attention to the lived realities of the most vulnerable populations, as the region’s experience in addressing poverty, unemployment and violence indicates. Cuban human rights activists also emphasize that state efforts to contain the virus must avoid trampling on the rights of already-marginalized groups.

Cuba’s vulnerability to what some observers have called a world-historical humanitarian disaster stems not only from deficiencies in the country’s national health system, but from pre-existing conditions of poverty, unemployment and shortages that have plagued the island for decades.

Although the Cuban State has confronted the virus by shutting off tourist arrivals to Jose Martí International Airport since March 21st and imposing containment measures, a week of response time was lost after authorities declared the country safe for international travel on March 14th, despite the fact that the World Health Organization had declared a pandemic on March 12th and advised states to respond accordingly.[2]

As of April 8th, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Cuba was 457; the independent outlet Diario de Cuba reports that approximately 10% of these cases are among children.[3] Havana is the epicenter of the epidemic, with 108 cases as of April 7th.[4] As the number of cases rises steadily, human rights activists and independent media outlets reveal concerning gaps in Cuba’s capacity to respond.

“In truth, there is so much uncertainty; we don’t have the full picture because the State doesn’t broadcast complete information over the national media, which it controls. There aren’t enough medicines, hospital capacity isn’t enough for this kind of situation and there have already been shortages for weeks, people don’t have enough to eat,” reported one activist.

Cuba has officially put in place quarantine measures similar to those adopted through the region, but the country’s economic situation inhibits these measures’ effectiveness. Another activist contacted by Race and Equality said that “the situation here makes it so that we can’t stay in our houses to avoid the virus. Cubans have to make their living day-to-day.”

“Among the State’s response measures, attention for elderly people in nursing homes, those who live alone and the many people who sleep on the streets has been announced. Authorities emphasize that people shouldn’t be outside. Big groups continue to form because there have been shortages for months and people need to get supplies. Children and the elderly are the only groups receiving targeted attention; the rest of the population is all treated the same under the official response.”

For years, human rights activists have denounced political, social and economic conditions in Cuba that impede the enjoyment of fundamental rights. With the arrival of coronavirus, chronic food shortages are particularly pressing, as they force Cubans to go out to seek food daily, preventing them from observing quarantine.

Meanwhile, the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights has reported an increase in rights violations amidst the pandemic.[5] The Observatory recorded 251 acts of repression by State authorities in March, including 192 arbitrary detentions and 27 “citations,” or orders to report to a police station for interrogation. These statistics mark March as the most difficult month of 2020 for Cuban civil society.

Cuban organizations have also expressed concern about the impacts of quarantine upon women who suffer violence in their homes. According to the feminist activist Lidia Romero, “Abused women have a concerning situation. Official institutions are not discussing the fact that danger can increase at home because you spend more time exposed to your abuser. That is why campaigns such as ‘Yo sí te creo en Cuba’ [‘Cuba, I believe you,’ an effort to empower victims and survivors of gender-based violence] are working on accompanying victims and reporting abuse.

The impacts of both the disease and containment measures fall especially heavily among groups whose rights are not officially recognized or effectively guaranteed. Race and Equality is particularly concerned about the situation of LGBTI Cubans, especially groups who live in extreme precarity such as trans women and trans sex workers. Romero reports that LGBTI activists have coordinated their own support system through social media, already identifying 17 individuals in need of urgent assistance, of whom 10 are trans women.

Informed by our work with grassroots activists across the region, Race and Equality is also concerned about the lack of disaggregated data about the situation of LGBTI Cubans, particularly trans people, in the pandemic. This data gap presents yet another difficulty in meeting their needs.

Race and Equality recommends that the Cuban State integrate intentional human rights protections into its coronavirus response measures. The State’s response should also specifically address the needs of marginalized groups such as women, the elderly and LGBTI people, including the need to avoid re-victimizing those suffering violence. Finally, we urge the government to fulfill its international obligations by ensuring access to healthcare, food and safety for all people.

We also recommend that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations continue to press the Cuban State to meet its people’s needs and provide assistance without any discrimination. We encourage these organizations to continue their monitoring of human rights to ensure the Cuban people’s well-being.

[1] “Coronavirus: el mapa que muestra el número de infectados y muertos en el mundo por el covid-19,” BBC News 5 Apr 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-51705060.

[2] “Cuba se declara “país seguro” para recibir turistas pese al coronavirus,” La Vanguardia 14 March 2020. Available at: https://www.lavanguardia.com/vida/20200314/474142252815/cuba-se-declara-pais-seguro-para-recibir-turistas-pese-al-coronavirus.html.

[3] “Casi un 10% de los contagiados con Covid-19 en Cuba son niños,” Diario de Cuba 7 April 2020. Available at: https://diariodecuba.com/cuba/1586279874_15666.html.

[4] “With 108 cases of COVID-19, Havana is the epicenter of the epidemic in Cuba,” Diario de Cuba 7 Apr 2020. Available at: https://diariodecuba.com/cuba/1586254554_15556.html.

[5] Observatorio Cubano de Derechos Humanos: “Gobierno cubano incrementa violaciones de derechos humanos en medio de pandemia de coronavirus.” Available at: https://observacuba.org/gobierno-cubano-incrementa-violaciones-de-derechos-humanos-en-medio-de-pandemia-de-coronavirus/.

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